When Iqbal Masih was 4, his parents sold him into slavery. For the next six years, he was shackled to a carpetweaving loom most of the time, tying tiny knots hour after hour.
By 12, he was free and traveling the world in his crusade against the horrors of child labor.
On Sunday, Iqbal was shot dead while he and two friends were riding their bikes in their village of Muritke. Some believe his murder was carried out by angry members of the carpet industry who had made threats to silence the young activist.
“We know his death was a conspiracy by the carpet mafia,” claimed Ehsan Ullah Khan, chairman of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, a group that fights child labor.
A man known as Ashraf was arrested but has been released, Khan said.
The killing came only months after young Iqbal had attracted international attention. At a labor conference in Stockholm, Sweden, last November, he spoke about the horrible conditions faced by child workers, who toil for long hours in unsafe conditions and earn as little as 1 rupee - 3 cents - a day.
“We had to get up at 4 and work 12 hours,” Iqbal said, barely tall enough to peer over the podium. “We were chained to the looms, but after work, we were usually released and could go home to sleep.”
At 10, Iqbal contacted the BLLF and was able to escape the factory.
In December, Iqbal went to Boston to receive the Reebok Youth in Action Award from the American shoe company.
At the time, Iqbal said he wanted to become a lawyer and would use the $15,000 prize money for school.
But Iqbal received repeated death threats from people in the powerful carpet-weaving industry.
Khan said Iqbal’s campaign had led to the closure of dozens of carpet-weaving factories.
Pakistan has an estimated 6 million child workers age 14 or younger.
Carpet factory owners prefer children because their tiny fingers make the smallest, tightest knots.